An excerpt from a work in progress, Same Old Story, a murder mystery set in the early 1950s world of the comic book business. Guy Dooley and the narrator, Max Wiser, are writers who have just learned the several of the publishers they write for are going under and have hit the streets in search of new work. Here, they run into one of their more successful colleagues. I love the Pincus the ribbon salesman joke beyond all rational explanation:

©2008 Paul Kupperberg


Deciding that being only half-drunk after receiving the news from Murray was worse than being sober, Guy was desperate for coffee. We stopped at the Automat on 44th Street, feeding enough nickels into the slots for a couple of cups of joe and a matching set of doughnuts.

Guy was lighting a cigarette when Robert Konigsberg sauntered up to the table. Tall and handsome in a rugged Robert Taylor sort of way, Bob had been an editor at National before leaving to write freelance. He was, for all intents and purposes, the top writer at the top company, responsible for a large chunk of their super-hero and romance lines. And he knew exactly where he stood in the pecking order, too. In a brushed camel hair coat and always freshly blocked Homburg, a bright and natty ascot as a dashing alternative to a tie, Bob was a fashion-plate, a teller of self-aggrandizing tall tales, a playboy, an often surprisingly good and creative writer, and a certified lunatic. There were too many Bob Konigsberg stories to tell, but the least bizarre of his traits included his habit, while writing during his lunch hours when he was still on staff, of suddenly leaping up on his desk, brandishing an umbrella or cane as a sword and sprouting ersatz Shakespearean dialogue at the top of his lungs, then calmly climbing back down to his seat and resuming his typing. His office mates thought he was eccentric. The head-shrinkers at a psychiatric facility in Valley Stream thought he was a danger to himself or others. Twice. Once for sixty days, then again for five months.

He was, by all reports, not currently crazy, making me wonder how crazy you had to be to qualify for crazy. I thought the guy was a fruitcake, but at least he was nuts in a way that made him interesting.

“Gentlemen,” he sniffed at us in his bored, affected nasal tone. “What’s the good word?”

“Down here on earth,” said Dooley, ”or up there on Olympus where you reside?”

“Jealousy of his betters aside,” Bob said, directing his question to me, “what’s his problem?”

“Pincus,” said Dooley, suddenly and apropos of nothing at all, “was the best ribbon salesman in New York. You ever hear this one, Bob? About Pincus, the ribbon salesman?”

Bob sighed theatrically. Konigsberg had several talents, but humor wasn’t one of them. The man was incapable of understanding funny in any form but the dry, smile provoking bon mot, which only he thought was humorous to begin with. Laughter was unknown to that sad, dark heart of his. So Guy liked to tell him jokes.

“He sold Woolworth’s, Gimbels, B. Altman’s, everywhere. But he could never sell to Macy’s. The ribbon buyer refused to change ribbon suppliers, but Pincus kept badgering him until, finally, one day, the buyer says, ‘Pincus, I’m in a bind. I need a piece of ribbon exactly two and six-sixteenths inches wide, of the exact red of a perfect sunset, with a texture like a baby’s behind, and as long as from the tip of your nose to the tip of your penis. I need it tomorrow by noon. Find it for me and from now on, I’ll buy all my ribbon from you.’ Pincus agrees to the terms and off he goes.”

Bob tapped his foot on the Automat’s scarred linoleum floor, waiting with undisguised impatience.

“The next day, at exactly noon, the phone in the buyer’s office rings and it’s Pincus. ‘I got your ribbon,’ he says. ‘Meet me outside.’ So outside the buyer goes and there’s Pincus…with ten big trucks full of ribbon! ‘Pincus,’ the buyer says, ‘the width is dead-on, the color is absolutely perfect, the texture so soft you could cry. But, Pincus, I said I wanted a piece only as long as from the tip of your nose to the tip of your penis!’

“’So?’ says Pincus. ‘The tip of my penis is back in Poland!’”

I laughed. Bob didn’t.

“You were saying?” Bob prompted me, as though Guy hadn’t spoken.

“Worldwide Distribution’s gone down the tubes and they’re taking Blue Chip and Feature, that we know of, with them,” I said.

Bob blinked. He stepped back. “When,” he said, “when did this happen?”

“Today. This afternoon,” I said. “You okay, Bob?”

I don’t think he heard me, just nodded out of reflex.

“Don’t set sail for Cloud Cuckoo-land on us now, Bob,” Guy said. “Remember, the guys you work own their own distribution company. They’re the only ones don’t have to worry.”

“Were you doing anything for one of them?” I knew Konigsberg drew a nice salary writing exclusively for National, but I’d also heard the rumors that he wrote secretly, under a variety of pseudonyms, for other publishers.

“Hmm?” Bob shook his head and focused his gaze on me once again. He managed a smile, but it never quite reached his eyes. “Actually, between you, me, and the lamppost,” he said, nodding in Guy’s direction, “I did provide some unsigned material on the side for some of their adventure and romance titles. Adventures Beneath the Earth, My Strangest Journey, Young and in Love, First Dates and so forth.” He waved his hand. “Strictly for income my wife was unaware of, a little extra cash to keep a certain someone in the style to which I’ve made her accustomed.”

Guy drained his coffee and rose to go after a refill. “Oh, Bob, you dog,” he said, deadpan, and left.

Bob shot his cuff and checked his wristwatch, making sure I got a gander at the gold band and jeweled face. “Well,” he said. “Speaking of which, I’d best be off. Don’t want to keep the lady waiting.”

I didn’t ask if he meant his wife or his girlfriend. I just said good-bye and returned to my doughnut.

Knowing that guys like Konigsberg would sail right through the current troubles with little more than an interruption in the quality of their adultery made me feel even worse for guys like me and Dooley. His kids could go hungry, I might have to live off my widowed mother or get a real job…but Bob Konigsberg might not be able to pay the rent on his floozy’s apartment.

At the moment, I couldn’t imagine a reason I could ever feel sorry for either Konigsberg or his floozy.

That would change soon enough.

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